Hackathon Planning

What is a hackathon?

Master these hackathon fundamentals to help you get ready to plan a successful event.

What do you think of when you hear the word “hackathon”? If your mind jumps to The Social Network movie or computer hackers, this article is for you!

In this article, we’ll dive into what modern-day hackathons really are. At Devpost, we power 80% of the world’s hackathons and have been in this business since 2009. We can help you discover everything there is to know about these events so you can be confident in running a successful hackathon. 

Learn about the different types of hackathons, ways to run hackathons, hackathon topics, and the purpose of these events as we unravel what a hackathon is.

What is a hackathon?

A hackathon is a skill-based competitive event where participants are asked to solve a problem and build solutions in a relatively short time frame. It typically involves developing software, creating an application, or brainstorming ideas to solve the problem.

Hackathons are often hosted by companies, schools, and organizations as a way to challenge participants to think creatively, inspire innovation, and generate project submissions.

During a hackathon, participants form teams and work on projects using programming languages and other tools to create mobile apps, websites, or other software solutions. The goal is usually to come up with a working prototype or demo by the end of the event.

At the end of a hackathon, project entries are reviewed by a panel of judges and the winner is awarded a prize.

A brief history of hackathons

It’s believed that the first hackathon was held by a group of OpenBSD developers on June 4, 1999, in Calgary, Canada. They are often credited with coining the term “hackathon,” which is a combination of the words “hacker” (used in the sense of computer programmers, not concerning cybercrime) and “marathon.”

Shortly after this, Sun Microsystems had a similar event at its JavaOne Conference where developers were challenged to create a program for a new device.

Given the impressive results produced in these events in such a short time, hackathons have continued to grow in popularity and are now frequently run by many of the world’s biggest companies. 

Types of hackathons

Hackathons can take place internally within a company or organization, or they can be external events open to the public. As an organizer, you should choose what type of hackathon to run based on your goals and target audience.

Public hackathons

Public hackathons (sometimes also called external hackathons) are open to the public and often attract participants from diverse backgrounds and experience levels. On Devpost, our user community is comprised of developers, technology enthusiasts, and students from all over the world with a wide range of professional experience and expertise.

Running public hackathons can help you:

  • Grow your developer ecosystem
  • Drive brand awareness for your new and existing developer tools
  • Generate projects using your developer tools
  • Get product feedback from your target audience
  • Recruit potential developers

Internal employee hackathons

Internal hackathons are run by organizations for their employees as a way to drive innovation and collaboration. Employees are asked to think creatively to solve specific business problems and create solutions. Internal hackathons are not only about coding—especially since generative AI has become more accessible.

Running internal hackathons can help you:

  • Solve emerging business challenges in a short time frame
  • Foster a culture of innovation
  • Improve employee collaboration and retention
  • Grow your team’s skillsets

Related: 8 Types of internal hackathons to drive innovation within your organization

Private customer hackathons

Private customer hackathons bring together teams from your customer’s community with yours to collaborate in real time. Companies host these events for select customer groups as a way to engage with their customers, improve product adoption, and gather highly specific insights from their existing customers. 

Running private customer hackathons can help you:

  • Train customers on using—or technically integrating—your product (so they’re less likely to churn)
  • Get customers building with your tools
  • Reduce the length of your sales cycle
  • Foster customer relationship-building
  • Collect valuable insights on product usage

Related: See how SAP drives customer engagement with private customer hackathons

Ways to run hackathons: virtually, in-person, and hybrid

Now that we’ve covered the types of hackathons and their target audiences, let’s look at the different ways to run a hackathon.

Virtual hackathons

In virtual hackathons, the entire event is conducted remotely through the use of platforms like Devpost and Devpost for Teams (DFT).

Running a virtual hackathon is one of the best ways to ensure your event is accessible to as many people as possible—enabling a diverse range of participants to join. As an organizer, these events are often simpler to run than in-person events because there are fewer venue-related logistics to plan.

You can also expect more polished hackathon project submissions because participants have more time to work on their projects. Many virtual hackathons run for six to eight weeks, which makes it easier for skilled professionals to participate. Running a remote hackathon also makes it possible for people from around the world to join, so you get access to more diverse skill sets.

Related: 7 Tips to make your next virtual hackathon a success

In-person hackathons

In-person hackathons bring participants together in the same location. These events tend to be a good option for small, community-based public hackathons, college events, or internal hackathons. In-person internal hackathons are a great option for companies looking to encourage collaboration and give employees an opportunity to network in person.

Hackathon platforms like Devpost and DFT help streamline hackathon management during in-person public and private events. These platforms help organizers save time by centralizing hackathon details, project submissions, and judging.

Related: Best practices for in-person hackathon managers [Free Guide]

Hybrid hackathons

Combining the best of both worlds, hybrid hackathons offer a blend of virtual and in-person experiences. This format accommodates participants' preferences, allowing them to join remotely or attend in person.

Need help planning your first hackathon? Book a free 1:1 strategy meeting.
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Popular hackathon themes

Looking for inspiration for your next hackathon? Check out the examples below from some of our most popular public hackathon categories.

AI hackathons

AI has changed the world of hackathons. In AI hackathons, participants aim to solve real-world challenges around or by using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. These events help power your company’s growth by empowering internal teams and external developer communities to identify and build AI-powered solutions.

See this recent AI hackathon on Devpost: Coda’s AI at Work Challenge

Related: How to run an AI hackathon [Free Guide]

Blockchain hackathons

Blockchain hackathons give participants an opportunity to build decentralized applications. These hackathons typically focus on tools like Layer 1 blockchain protocols, decentralized data, smart contracts, and more. You can run blockchain hackathons to add DApps to your ecosystems, test your protocols and documentation, get feedback, and find applicants for grant programs.

While these events tend to be more technical, organizers are encouraged to welcome non-coders to participate by providing resources, forums, and workshops to help them get started.

See this recent blockchain hackathon on Devpost: TRON Grand Hackathon - HackaTRON Season 6

Beginner-friendly hackathons

Not everyone is a coding expert, and that’s where beginner-friendly hackathons come in. These events are designed to welcome people who are new to coding or who are intimidated by joining a more advanced competition. As more people tend to join these types of hackathons, they’re a great way to grow your community and generate creative project submissions.

See this recent beginner-friendly hackathon on Devpost: The PartyRock Generative AI Hackathon by AWS

Learn how to run a hackathon

Ready to start planning your hackathon? You’ve got this! Whether you’re looking to connect with your customers or your colleagues through hackathons, we can help make sure your next event is a success.

Hackathon planning resources for you